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Why do we have have offices anyway?

Work from an office, or work from home?
The first "offices". Monks copying manuscripts in a Scriptorium

Companies have recently been struggling with what the ‘new normal’ is in a post pandemic world to get employees back in an office environment. The dialog around this has been significant in recent weeks. There is benefit with collaboration, social connection, equity, the cultural connection with the organisation, but the resistance to have workers and employers to align has never been more obvious.

But the idea of an office as a workplace is actually not an age old concept, but a very modern concept. It started with monks in the mediaeval times coming to a place to focus when they were reading and copying manuscripts, called the scriptorium. The first bankers, the Medici family, created a central administrative location for their workers due to the sensitivity and value of their work - they dealt with money! This was the exception from the rule, at this time most work still happened in fields or peoples homes as they toiled the land or utilised their craft as work. 

A significant shift in the 50’s and 60’s occurred as the industrialisation was at its peak and the likes of IBM was introducing large computing machines that were so large they needed to be in a central location and the workers came to that location to do their work - the office.

The office evolved predominantly from having the resources (manuscripts, records, or mainframes) there as they were either too rare, valuable or bulky. Over time we have added other dependencies with co-locating people in an office location. The benefits that come with delivering outcomes from collocated collaborating teams or the culture you can build in an organisation. There is also a need in society to be able to communicate leadership and hierarchy which can be done in a physical location.

There is also a whole ecosystem of support that has come from this, the office commute, reliable public transport, the “Central Business District” and supporting businesses (think of the coffee shops, restaurants, gyms etc), and even hours of operation. 

But have we outgrown this in a post-pandemic world, where humans have slowly gravitated back to what feels more natural - merging their life and work in a more natural balance? Technology has evolved so much that we no longer need to go to a location to access resources. Cloud computing, secure remote working, improved collaboration tools have all started to bridge the gap of why the office came about in the first place. Sure, we may be missing some of the benefits you have from physically and culturally bringing people together, but are there benefits that could outweigh this and it may be time to reimagine the work environment?

Being in an office environment  also brought on a culture of endless meetings. Consider it an evil or unnecessary by-product, with nearly half of us in a recent survey citing meetings a complete waste of our time. Meetings also have their own history. They started with the Ancient Greeks, Romans and the Chinese. It was a way for Royalty or the Councils to communicate messages. It was not until the Romans introduced “The Forum” where the senate came together to discuss important topics. And then in the late 1800’s Henry Martyn Robert introduced “Robert’s Rules of Order” which is the basis for most parliamentary discussions, and how most meetings are structured today with a chairperson, motions, resolutions, discussions and actions. But is a method of ordered group collaboration and communication less than 150 years old the right way for business to be conducted?

We might not be there yet. As good as Video Conferencing technology has become (thanks to COVID-19 and the improvements that occurred to make it possible to have meetings from home), it is still not as good as physically meeting people and looking them in the eye - which is a critical element of human interaction to build trust (have you noticed that looking at a screen during a VC is not looking at the camera, so you are not making eye contact).

So should we return to the office and why?

We seriously need to think about where we want to take the future. 500 years ago, people would cringe at the thought of the ritual of putting on a tie, commuting a long journey, to another small physical space so that we could complete tasks with others around us completing tasks that we sometimes do together and sometimes we don’t, only to undertake another long and arduous commute back to our home and families, day in, and day out. But at the same time, do we expect to disintegrate the whole system of office buildings, CBD’s, public transportation and coffee shops in a matter of years? What does the next 500 years have in store for us? Or even the next 5 years?


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